The catch, however, is that the match was never really played.

By Bryan Johnston

Ask any pool player what they consider the greatest pool match ever played and you’ll most likely hear Efren Reyes vs. Earl Strickland, June, 1995. Or perhaps Willie Mosconi vs. Rudolph “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone, Valentine’s Day, 1978. The Reyes/Strickland match is an obvious contender from a pure skill perspective, while the Mosconi/Wanderone match gets a nod for its theatrics and entertainment value. But from where I’m sitting the greatest match was a 25-hour marathon played in a dank pool hall called Ames in New York City, back in ’61. The catch, however, is that the match was never really played. At least not in real life. The players in the match were “Fast” Eddie Felson, played by actor Paul Newman, and Minnesota Fats, played by Jackie Gleason. The scene is from “the greatest movie about pool ever made,” The Hustler.

Read more about the famous matchup between Gleason and Newman, and its significance to pool history, in Hustler Days.

Do yourself a favor and go back and watch the movie again and be astonished at the level of play by the two actors. And yes, that really was them making those shots. At least for the most part. The film’s technical advisor was Willie Mosconi who only a few years earlier had made a run of winning the World Straight Pool Championship an unprecedented 15 times between 1941 and 1957. He was brought in to make a few of the more challenging masse’ shots. However, Mosconi wasn’t needed for any of Jackie Gleason’s shots.

Gleason was a seasoned player who learned the game at an early age growing up in Brooklyn, New York and was a fair hustler in his day. Paul Newman, on the other hand, never really played the game, but once he was cast for the role of “Fast” Eddie he went into full method acting mode and immersed himself in all things pool. He took the dining table out of his home and replaced it with a pool table so that he could practice around the clock in the weeks leading up to shooting. He became so confident in his game that he challenged Gleason to a match for $50. Newman took the opening break and never got a second shot. Gleason made a 15-ball run. Newman, it’s said, paid Gleason off the next day with 5,000 pennies.

The Hustler earned nine Academy Award nominations, winning two, and effectively took pool out of the margins and made it accessible, respectable, and dare I say it, cool; perfectly summed up by how graciously and dignified Eddie and Fats acknowledge each other after their brutal match.

Eddie: “Fat Man, you shoot a great game of pool.”

Fats: “So do you, Fast Eddie.” 

A match for the ages.

Read more about the famous matchup in R.A. Dyer’s Hustler Days and The Hustler and The Champ, both from Lyons Press.